What if the media staged a stunt — or helped stage a stunt — and nobody came?
Would the media still cover it? Would California's governor get suckered in?
In the case of the recently concluded Minuteman Project, which vowed to blockade the southern Arizona border with more than 1,000 volunteers during the entire month of April, the answer, unfortunately, was a resounding yes.
For two solid weeks, thousands of news stories cascaded from the hardscrabble border zone, focusing on what was, in reality, a group of True Believers whose real numbers were tiny.
Though the Minuteman organizers vowed that 1,600 or more mad-as-hell volunteers had signed up for duty and that "potentially several thousands" would participate in the kickoff rallies during April Fools' weekend, turnout was an unmitigated flop — less than a tenth of the promised throngs showed up at the rallies. The entire Minuteman spectacle, indeed, easily qualified for that journalistic catchall phrase, "a fizzle," but virtually none of the news media reported it as such.
On its opening day, I could count no more than 135 participants, even at the two kickoff public rallies along the Arizona border. At one near the border town of Douglas, two dozen reporters and a handful of TV cameras swarmed over no more than 10 Minutemen — most of them sitting in lawn chairs or in pickup truck beds. During the entire kickoff weekend, the media troops clearly outnumbered the Minutemen. And in the days that followed, piecing together the various reports and reading between the lines, it's obvious that the Minuteman numbers dwindled to no more than a few dozen at a time. If that many people marched down Hollywood Boulevard for any cause, who'd report it?
Indeed, only 18 days into the monthlong project, the effort collapsed. Predictably, a few hundred illegal immigrants had chosen not to cross in that area during the media ruckus. Minuteman organizers preposterously declared victory, claiming they had shut down the border to illegal immigration and packed off home. Even then, most news reports failed to acknowledge the project's obvious failure — which may explain why on Thursday Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger offered sappy praise for the fiasco.
But the notion of platoons of gun-toting yahoos combing the U.S. border and possibly confronting (if not shooting) illegal crossers or even Border Patrol agents was just too much of a temptation for a sensation-driven media to resist. The streets of picturesque Tombstone were, all of a sudden, jammed with mammoth satellite trucks as reporters, camera operators, technicians and writers combed the tourist saloons for their story like modern Wyatt Earps stalking the Clanton gang. No one in the media, it seems, wanted to be the one who told his or her boss that they had trekked out to the border for no reason. So the media shut their eyes and obediently played their role as enablers to the publicity-starved organizers. That too-common Faustian bargain of modern media was quietly negotiated: We'll put you on the air or get you in the paper if you give us good copy. Show us a few guys with guns so we can get our story and go home.
"They came by the hundreds," is how the Los Angeles Times breathlessly led its first-day report out of Tombstone, only to tell us deeper in the story that the actual number of Minutemen who showed up were "200 or so." A Times follow-up three days later got us closer to the truth when Minuteman organizer Jim Gilchrist admitted: "This thing was a dog-and-pony show designed to bring in the media and get the message out, and it worked."
It worked so well that less than a week later another Times reporter filed a 1,200-word of profile of Gilchrist, an obscure, retired Orange County accountant. Even though, by then, the Minuteman Project was into its 11th day, the reporter made no mention of the actual status of his collapsing border event.
The situation along the U.S.-Mexican border continues to sink into chaos, and Congress and the White House do little more than aggravate things. In spite of billions of dollars spent to bolster the line, every year hundreds of thousands (or perhaps millions) of desperate migrants manage to evade the human, physical and environmental barriers and make the crossing to wind up as our maids, nannies and gardeners.
More than 3,000 died trying to make the crossing in the last decade — 10 times more than all those who perished trying to jump the Berlin Wall.
It's a complex and vexing issue that is getting hotter by the day. Now more than ever the public needs news media that are serious, thoughtful and analytical, not compliant suckers for the wound-up partisans and pandering politicians who are increasingly likely to inflame or obfuscate the issue with goofball dog-and-pony shows.
Marc Cooper is a contributing editor of the Nation, a columnist for L.A. Weekly and a senior fellow at the Institute for Justice and Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. He can be reached through www.marc cooper.com.
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times